Unsteady and slow? The creative process, or why I run marathons.

Here it goes. I’m working with this project bit by bit, piece by piece. Can it possibly be more inefficient?

This is my first attempt at my introductory V/O… There is a lot I’m figuring out on my own. I’m a slow and unsteady learner.

Creating this film, documenting women who as they age continue to train hard and run marathons, has been more demanding than any marathon I’ve run. After every training run there is the satisfaction of a task completed: a distance, a time, a pace…, at the other side of the finish line there’s a medal, a party, a hot bath. It counterbalances a life normally a little too scattered, maybe way too easily distracted, and almost always pulled in many directions at once. A parent, a spouse, and during the school year— a teacher—. Running is one thing I do—something I’ve done for more than 40 years—I don’t have to think hard about. I put on my shoes and run out the door.

Even still, I am pulled to consider the needs of others around me. Will I be back in time to help Don get Henry ready for school? The dog started putting on weight. She gazes up at me longingly when she sees me lacing up my running shoes and if it’s not too hot and I’m not planning too long a run, I’ll bring her with me.

Some runners I know are consistent. I am not. Every day is different. Training for a marathon provides a structure and a focus towards something concrete.

 

Training for and running marathons is inseparable from the challenges and limits of aging: we build endurance, and patience and humility. And the end of a run, the personal rewards keep us moving.  

a not-so-bad run

This morning’s may be the first run in two months where I’ve felt like my runner self rather than a self in recovery from a difficult training and a hard marathon. I’ve been suffering some digestive issues and sort of feeling lousy but I’m reading a lot and trying to rethink how I eat and what I eat. I might be due for a visit to a nutritionist who works with athletes. More protein? At the very least.

The 6.2 mile jog to Dogwood Dell and back felt great— or at least, I felt strong and relaxed for at least half the run and picked it up at the end for a last speedy mile. It didn’t take me two miles just to not be feeling wretched, so this is a marked improvement over my runs this past month. I don’t need to know my pace. I kept my watch just on the time function to be sure I was back home and showered to get Henry to soccer camp. Don ended up taking him in.

It’s summer break from teaching and I was hoping to restore and replenish but that’s not yet happening. I’m still feeling a little beaten up by the grueling experience with Henry’s school last year. Maybe not so for him personally—although it’s hard to know how the turmoil affected him: with awareness that every word, every behavior, scrutinized and examined and rated for its disruption quotient. By mid spring I was out of patience and generosity towards his teacher and an administration who met my concerns with denial and deflection. I excepted the assessment that Henry was a difficult kid for his teacher, but it was too painful to engage in open dialog with a teacher whose written and spoken reports invariably contained acerbic assessments and global denouncements. Without the willingness of the administration to examine the bigger issue of how the school was accommodating learning differences between boys and girls, there could be no progress. For the administration it would require taking a hard look at the philosophy of the school, and seriously considering the observations of outside evaluators, and this was too much of a threat.

The emotional and psychological challenges of being a parent take their toll. Sometimes when things fall apart we have to reverse course. Or stop what we’re doing and evaluate what need to change. Things weren’t working well at Sabot for Henry. It was time to cut bait and move on. My health isn’t what it needs to be for me to start training again. I’m not sure what pieces I need to assemble to feel stronger and healthier. When training goes well it’s great. When we’re stopped by injury or slowed by illness, it calls for humility, and kindness and patience. And that’s hard work. Maybe I have to stop thinking of it as work.

What I Hope to Accomplish Today.

I am starting to read What I talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Marakumi. I put down Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott after getting into the specifics of character and plot. I’m not much for advice about what makes good writing. Maybe I should heed some advice. Both books are about writing: why they write. What they think about writing. How they approach writing. Or maybe they’re about discipline and continuity. I can go back and forth: is this about writing as metaphor for living, or running as metaphor for writing, or running as metaphor…you get the idea. Or maybe each activity informs another and writing about writing is just writing about writing and writing about running is just writing about running.

So writing as a discipline is just a discipline and after there is something to show for the time and energy spent: something bad or something good or neither.  I read Marakumi talk about finishing a run or completing his day’s writing. He describes ending his run at a point of “exhilaration” that can “carry over” to the following day’s run. He see’s writing this way.

He makes it sound so easy. Myself, I am running just to keep it going so that it doesn’t get harder for when I can feel the love again. Right now, I feel tired and a little groggy and slow.

So to write about continuity or write about running and continuity poses a tricky problem today when I’m feeling neither energy nor focus. So I need to read Murakami to the end to see if he has those days when he doesn’t feel the endorphin rush. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe there is something in his training as a Japanese man that give shim consistency, like a violin that never goes out of tune.

Today I’m just creaky and whiney. I’s not so much one foot in front of the other today as it one leg dragging the other.

Last night we had two of Henry’s closest friends over for a sleepover. It was one long party and it just may have been too much of a party and I’m a little hung over. We took all the boys to a Richmond Kicker’s—the local pro soccer team—game. They were treated to pizza and hotdogs and every boy got a white Kicker’s t-shirt which the players signed following their rout of the Antigua Barracuda. After the game the boys ran onto the field to join a crowd of kids and parents and a few players with their families. The boys, I just learned, were competing for who could get the most signatures. I just wanted them to have a good time. One boy didn’t like the deserts we brought so I took him up to the concession and bought him m+m’s. Probably a big choice.

The pool we belong to was open until 10 pm to celebrate the start of summer vacation from school. The boys had 20 minutes to play before the lifeguards blew the whistle for adult lap swimming. Both moms’ texted me to ask if their’ boys were holding out okay. I didn’t se any sign of fatigue and relented when they begged for Nutty Buddies to finish off the night. I was regretting that at 2 am when Henry came in and woke me up to say his friend wouldn’t go to sleep. They were talking about watching a movie on the iPad and making shadow puppets with the flashlight one boy brought as insurance in case he was afraid to go to sleep in the dark.

Murakami writes about accomplishing what you set out to do as a runner, how the goals are internally driven. He claims to be competitive, but not so much against other runners. At first I thought, “well lucky him”. But then I had to see some truth in this. Right now, I just want to run to maintain discipline with the hope that it can become something good some day. A new race to train for.  A more balanced mental state. Aside from me: a more responsible child in Henry. ANd why do I write? Just as a promise to myself and because it may be one of the few things I do that I don’t judge (constantly). Maybe I can teach myself to run this way.

I’m going to make the mulberry pie I promised Don and Henry, with the mulberries they collected yesterday. Then I’m going to go for a jog.

Organizing Stuff

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Dragged myself out of bed for a run with the dog this morning. Why am I still feeling so sluggish two full months after Boston? The thrill of being on summer break from school is that I can allow myself this slow recovery time. Every day is a new start. It takes a good mile or more just to warm up, but the best part is stretching out after. My plan was to go out for a 5-6 mile run but on impulse I harnessed up the dog and took her out. Her paw has been bothering her so the plan was to take her for a mile and a half out and back then log in another two miles but by the time I got home and chatted with my neighbor on her way to work, I was ready to cool down and stretch and eat.

Today’s task: log in all my new footage. That includes everything I shot in the past year, including all the go-pro footage.

And begin the text for my narration. One big piece that I can begin today is my own story. This blog will be my sketchbook so I might as well begin here.

I started running in elementary school. Our gym teacher would have us run up the hill around the area where staff parked cars (hardly a parking lot) and back down to the gym door. Maybe we did laps. The total it couldn’t have been 400 meters. It seems funny now that at the same age Henry can run a 5k.

I ran as a teenager on and off. It was about a mile up the hill from my house to Michele Liebel’s house. So my standard route was a two mile loop, part of it through a stretch of road with no houses, just woods where I later I would x-country ski in the winter. If I made it a long run it was a 3 mile lop to the flashing light and back. Many of the women I speak with ran track in high school. Doing an organized sport, for whatever reason, wasn’t part of our family system. Was it too chaotic? Did we just not do anything organized? Am I willing to read into this a much more fundamental piece of my story (about personal achievement and neglect or maybe just ignorance.) We rode bikes. My sister, Paula, and I (and my dad) signed onto bike tours with American Youth Hostels. My dad rode his bike to work in the ’70’s when this was one more aspect of his eccentricity. He also baked bread, made most of the family dinners, and put up gallons of his spaghetti sauce with fresh sausage he would by from some ethic butcher somewhere is Albany. So my dad rode is bike to work and back—in the snow wearing battery-operated hunting socks—close to a 20 mile loop.

This may not have anything to do with the documentary and it may not be at all interesting to my readers but for me, I just saw a piece of the story I never realized. I see myself as unfocused and undisciplined: a scattered and flighty mind, albeit somewhat cheerful and excited, but lacking discipline. Watching Henry’s mind evolve is much like a mirror into my own mind. Running marathons fulfills my craving for discipline: clearly directly connected to my dad. What I admired most in him. This is another story to tell. Maybe my next novel, once I go back to my first one sitting in a ZIP drive somewhere…

Still, when adolescence kicked in with all the misery and awkwardness and self-loathing (ugh) those mile and half /two mile runs a few times a week kept me connected and grounded if only for a short time. When the depression was crippling, I didn’t run. And sometimes that was for months at a time. Other times I was dancing, classes a few times a week. Still throughout high school and then at Cornell, being able to run— always thinking of myself as “able to run” was an anchor, however flimsy at times, to keep myself upright. Or moving forward, however insignificantly.

This piece today isn’t the prettiest to write about, but it touches on the crux of why I run at all. As for the marathon, that part of the story will come soon enough.

Daily pages:
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Did I suddenly see a missing piece? How did I miss something so basic?
Picking up a project that was abandoned demands an answer. “Why haven’t you been able to finish me?” And there is not just a single answer, which is why a wicked problem is so hard to solve.

It’s a list:
1) Time: only so much of it. Teaching takes up much of the physical time of the day. And mental time. Much of the space needed for working through the creative pieces is taken up with teaching. Creative space is a limited commodity. At least for me.

2) Priorities: Family. Time with Henry. After school time for groceries and errands, and help with homework or cello practice. Dinner, a game after dinner if time. Clean up, then bed time. By then, I have little left: energy: mental and physical. Marriage. Don couldn’t be easier to live with. Steady and grounded. A beautiful.

3) Training: Marathon Training itself. With all the demands on my energy and time, training is discipline with specific requirements, especially with a coach who spells out my training day by day. It’s purely physical and a matter of will. When so much of the day during the school year draws from my creative, intuitive well, training balances this out. I can carve out the time if I don’t have to think about it: an hour here for a 5,6,10 mile run when I know all these distances from my front door. A half hour before bed to follow my strength routine. I don’t care if it’s boring, or all the same. I can do it without thinking. Planning out weekends so that on Sunday mornings I can count on the few hours for my long run and recovery.

4) Fear: Why am I doing this? Who am I? What if it’s lousy? Amateurish. Inept. Lacking skill. Nagging doubts. How will I know if it’s done? Worse: it’s a fantastic project and significant. How can I live up to the potential? How can I make it count for something?

This last part was too large to tackle. Running a marathon is purely mechanical. Sometimes as the pieces fall together (weather, training, injury-free, strategy) and even when it’s much harder than I thought (as with Boston and something is missing (strategy/nutrition?) it’s still happening or not. You don’t stop for an hour at the side of the road and forget which way to go, or take a detour and stop at the library. I don’t know how I finished Boston but it couldn’t have been hard to follow the crowds

At this point it comes down to just finishing something I started. In the process I’m going to learn SO much about myself. Beside me is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

Or as Debbie Hetherington describes her own bad day out at her first Boston Marathon, “Mile by mile.” One mile at a time.
One task at a time. Documenting the Documentary.

picking it back up

I did a 16 mile training run for Boston today with a woman who confessed to having a hard time getting back into training after her half marathon last Fall. I can push through these down times in training much more easily then the creative/mental blocks of this project. It’s a large part of why I do this. It’s so concrete and black and white. You put on your shoes and you run. Left foot, right foot, left foot right foot. Knees drive, core strong. I can do that or I know what to do to work on that. Now to get back to my video project: where to start. So here I am. Trying to address the larger issues of work and balance and create drive and personal accomplishment and ownership and working through challenges. Doing this project has been much more challenging than any marathon. There is so much more at stake.

pupose?

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Why do this? Why do documentary work? It comes down to a very basic belief that story-telling/sharing stories/telling, is a profound means for us to find meaning in our own lives. To connect. To understand. To teach. I know this on one level as it’s the very first thing I address in a documentary class. But it’s one thing to know it intellectually and another to feel it when I wonder about the value of all the time I’m spending. And, I feel a sense of responsibility to those who have allowed me into their homes, or openly shared their stories and experiences.

I’m off to D.C. for a half marathon this weekend. No work. Just my own story for a few days. Don and Henry will hardly notice I’m gone.